Two People, Fifteen Days, Thirty Meals. Thirty-Five Bucks!

The purpose of today's post is to show a practical example of how you can eat a low-cost, healthy diet over an extended period of time, without having to spend hours in the kitchen every day.

Below is a recipe list, menu list and itemized grocery list you can use to feed two people a wide range of simple, healthy dinners for fifteen days. It can easily be scaled up for larger families, or used as a template for your own collection of favorite, low-cost recipes. And this is no hypothetical menu that looks good on paper but fails miserably in practice. I actually used this exact menu, made these exact food purchases and cooked these exact recipes during an actual fifteen day period a couple of months ago. This was a real 15-day trial carried out in real life.

It's deceivingly easy to assume that eating involves unavoidable tradeoffs: Healthy food has to be expensive. Cooking at home means spending hours slaving away in the kitchen. There's not enough time or money to eat well at home.

Forget all those phony tradeoffs. This 30-meal plan proves that things can be easy: Cooking low-cost, healthy food at home can be done efficiently, with surprisingly little effort and for a tiny fraction of the cost of eating out. Keep reading to see what I mean. At the end of the post, I'll explain some of the behind-the-scenes factors that helped make this trial much easier to execute than we expected.

The bottom line is this: cooking and eating healthy, low-cost meals for weeks at a time can be done--and it doesn't have to be hard work.

Recipe List:
Garden Gumbo - 1.5 batches
Black Beans and Rice - double batch
Viennese Potato Soup - double batch
Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry - double batch
Chicken Mole
Easy Lentil Soup with Chicken

Grocery List:
Produce aisle:
2 Green bell peppers: $2.05
Celery, bag: $1.99
Onions, 3 lb bag: $2.99
Garlic: 50c
Carrots, 2 lb bag: $1.79
Cabbage head, ~3 lb: $2.47
Potatoes: 5 lb bag: $3.49

Canned Foods/Beans/Dried Legumes aisle:
1 14.5-oz can red beans: 67c
2 lb bag brown rice: $1.79
4 14.5-oz can black beans: $2.68
3 29-oz cans stewed tomatoes: $3.00
1 lb dried lentils: $79c

Meat aisle:
Package bacon: $3.99 (note: we used about 1/3 of the bacon)
Value-pack chicken breasts: 5 lbs: $6.91 (we used 1.5 lbs in the Chicken Mole and we added 1.5 lbs as an extra ingredient to the Lentil Soup)

Grand Total Food Cost: $35.11
Schedule of Dinners
Day 1: Garden Gumbo
Day 2: Black Beans and Rice
Day 3: Garden Gumbo
Day 4: Black Beans and Rice
Day 5: Viennese Potato Soup with Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 6: Garden Gumbo
Day 7: Viennese Potato Soup
Day 8: Black Beans and Rice
Day 9: Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 10: Chicken Mole
Day 11: Fresh Carrot and Cabbage Curry
Day 12: Chicken Mole
Day 13: Easy Lentil Soup
Day 14: Chicken Mole
Day 15: Easy Lentil Soup

A few final notes:
1) Was this your entire food expense for the full 15 days?
No. Just dinners. However, the recipes in this meal plan will also cover quite a few lunches here and there from leftovers--at zero incremental cost. Your mileage (and caloric intake) may vary.

2) No, seriously, you actually ate all this food for just $35?
Look, no way was I going to lowball my costs and then crush the dreams of an excited reader who tried this meal plan but found his costs to be way out of line with mine. Admittedly, the de minimus cost of some common pantry items (spices, olive oil, bouillon cubes, optional white rice, etc) aren't included. More importantly, however, after the trial ended, we still had 2/3 of a package of bacon, about 2 lbs of chicken, most of a bag of onions, most of a head of garlic, several carrots, most of a 5-lb bag of potatoes, 1/3 of a bag of celery and the bulk of a 2-lb bag of brown rice still sitting in our kitchen. Had I calculated the meal costs based on the actual portions of the food we used, the total cost would have been as much as $9.00 lower.

In other words, technically, I could have titled this post Two People, Fifteen Days, Thirty Meals. Twenty-Six Bucks. There are always going to be errors and variability estimating exact food costs, but I made sure my error factor would be from overestimating the costs, not lowballing them. Many readers could do this trial for much less money.

3) Why did you say that the trial was easy? How could it possibly be easy?
Mainly for one reason: we made liberal use of CK's list of Best Laughably Cheap Recipes. Further, we took advantage of the fact that nearly all of the recipes here at CK are extremely scalable, meaning they can be made in double (or even triple) batches for very little incremental work.

One more trick you can use: cook double batches of dinner on two successive nights, and then alternate the leftovers over the following days. Face it: reheating food you've already made is by light years the easiest way to get healthy food on the table. And when you alternate two sets of leftover meals, you won't get sick of eating the same damn thing every night.

You'll notice one more thing about our meal plan. There isn't that much meat in it. Surprise! You've stumbled onto one of the unsung advantages of a low-meat, part-time vegetarian diet. Nevertheless, our protein requirements were easily met with this meal plan.

Finally, this 15-day schedule could easily be repeated with two or three other mini-collections of recipes culled from CK's Best Laughably Cheap Recipes. In theory, you could create a meal template for an indefinite period of time: just rotate in a new batch of recipes every two weeks. Result? Hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year saved on your food bill.

4) I'd feel like a total loser if I had to spend this little money on my food.
Ha! I'll go you one better: I built a spreadsheet to calculate my food costs--just for this post! Set aside your ego for a moment and understand the central point: there's actually no sacrifice involved here. This trial shows that you can eat extremely well for very little money--and even less time spent cooking. Try it, see for yourself... and feel free to spend your leftover money on something else.

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Marcia said...

Okay, this is awesome. I will have to try at least some of these recipes now that I'm on maternity leave. Maybe wait until a few weeks after the baby arrives though. I'll work them around our CSA.

Cynthia said...

I'm going to try with a few changes: No onions(allergy)
Mixing it up with a few other dishes I can make with those items. (Because there is no way I could get my husband to eat the same thing that often.

And finally a question: the Viennese soup calls for mushrooms, but none are listed on the grocery list?

Little Les said...

thanks for doing all the work for us, especially the grocery list!

Daniel said...

Cynthia.. that is an excellent catch. Absolutely excellent. As it turned out, we made the Viennese soup without mushrooms--in part because they are a non-critical ingredient... but mainly because I'd forgotten to buy them. :)

Thus you can choose: leave 'em out or include them. Including them will of course add a buck or two to your overall cost.


Cynthia said...

Since I'm not using the onions, I have some wiggle room. :)
However, I'm going to be a pest and ask where the zucchini are for the gumbo and whats up with the red beans.

To make for being a pest: do you have the recipe for lentils and eggs? If not I'll be glad to send it to you, it is both cheap and easy.

Daniel said...

Haha awesome. You're not being a pest at all. If you're asking why there are red beans on the list, they went into the garden gumbo. As for the zucchini, it's yet another non-essential ingredient that you can feel free to include or leave out, depending on your preferences.

And yes, I'd definitely love to see your recipe... send it to my email if you don't mind (dan1529[at]yahoo[dot]com). Maybe I'll run a post on it!


Cynthia said...

Sent! I love cloud storage!!

And since I didn't say it in the email:
I Love Casual Kitchen!!

chacha1 said...

What were the parameters of this particular challenge? Was it "let's see if we can eat for two weeks on fifty bucks or less"?

I would be a big fat FAIL. I've eaten cheap-for-the-sake-of-cheap and don't want to go back there. Don't like lentils. Too lazy to cook dry beans.

I am definitely in a phase of happily paying for convenience and speed. Sometimes that means a bagel with cream cheese and lox, sometimes it means throwing a couple of filets mignons under the broiler.

I will confess though, that this makes me wonder how cheaply I could feed us if I were *trying.* :-)

Daniel said...

Interesting question! In some ways this is a sequel to my Attack of the Cheaps! post. You're onto what I was trying to do with your last sentence: I wondered how cheaply I could feed us if I *really* tried.

Thus there's no implied or prescriptive "you have to eat cheap for the sake of eating cheap" message here. And no dry beans either by the way. :) This post is just a literal description of a two-week food trial that I knew would be low cost--I just wanted to see exactly *how* low cost it really could be. And it exceeded my expectations in the sense that it came in cheaper than even I thought it would.

What I'm saying is you can surely pay extra for convenience and speed if you wish to. But what if that's a false paradigm? What if cost, convenience and speed (and for that matter health and nutrition content) don't have to be mutually exclusive?


Joanne said...

I have been spending WAY too much on groceries lately (it's all the fresh fruit! I just can't help myself) and you've inspired me to cut the costs a bit!

Anonymous said...

Love the premise of your "experiment" Also get why some folks are so scared of it because it really denounces some of the classic excuses about inexpensive, healthy cooking up front.

As for those saying they don't like lentils, well I don't care for them straight up either. But when seasoned like taco meat, can't tell the difference. Or like sloppy joes, or in soup. They blend in, melt away and just become part of the yummy that is happening.

Some parts of inexpensive healthy cooking do require a bit of time commitment, and I think that is what scares people the most. Not the monetary cost, but the time I put in some effort and this could still not taste good cost. And if it doesn't taste good then I just wasted money

Sally said...

I like lentils, but I can certainly tell the difference between lentils and meat in tacos or sloppy joes. I've made a great lentil loaf with lentils and brown rice. It's very tasty, but it's not going to fool anyone into thinking it's meatloaf.

Shannon said...

Some awesome posts on your website - thank you for the recipes and ideas.

I am going to try this 2 week menu plan .. i swapped out a few of the ingredients to help keep within our food budget goal (meat is much more expensive here, so i opted for a kilo of chicken legs rather than the breasts and passed on the bacon altogether) but overall I think this will give a good recipe base for dinners for the next couple weeks, and it's different than what I usually make!

And I believe your mention of leftovers for lunch should be mentioned again- I think more people need to consider packed lunches every day rather than eating out. Its so much cheaper, healthier, and more satisfying than what you would usually get at a cafeteria or restaurant.

Daniel said...

Shannon, thank you for such a great comment. Glad you found value here.

And yes, thanks for amplifying the point about lunches. It is a big part why using the ideas in this post can save so much money. Best of all, the food is healthier!


Perry said...

I priced all the items this morning in my local Safeway in Bethesda, MD. Total came to $38.73 - this included the aforementioned missing mushrooms. Some items were on sale others weren't. So all in all pretty darned close to the $35 Daniel stated. Got me to thinking about how much would additional items - breakfast, tea, fruit, additional veggies, breads, peanut butter, etc. to round out groceries for a 30 day period would cost (for a single person). So, I priced all those other items and a few others and the price tag came in at just under $75.

Daniel said...

Perry, that's phenomenal. Thanks for the corroboration, and thanks for taking the trial to a new level by costing it out for a full month. Great work.


Jim Hohl said...

Great post, as always, Dan. Just have to point out that in Manhattan, and probably other cities, this will cost you almost double. I buy a lot of beans and they cost a minimum of $1.25. Veggies, fuhgeddaboudit. Still, $70 for 15 days of dinners is pretty good. Thanks for the tips.

La Cuisine d'Helene said...

Thanks for sharing on twitter, this is how I found out about your blog post. You have a great menu. I should go to the grocery and see how much it would cost me here in Canada. Many recipes to try. :)

Daniel said...

More great comments.

Jim, you're absolutely right, this was just the costs I faced in my community. They will be lower or higher depending on where you live. Although I will say in Manhattan, the relative cost of this meal plan compared to eating out would be at least as attractive, if not more.

Helene, be sure to check back with your results should you try this menu plan out!


Unknown said...

Are the recipes already doubled?

Daniel said...

Hi Kaye, if you're referring to the links to the recipes in this post, no: the recipes are not already doubled.